Jan 22, 2009 10:18am
Re: bible swearing trivia
Did George Washington really say "So help me God"?
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
by Ray Soller
In your Commentary entitled JUST WHOSE AMERICA IS THIS, ANYWAY?, among the many hyper-extended sentences, I happened to read the following:
". . . I also noted that "The Constitution of the United States never once mentions God, not even in its Preamble (though a number of State Constitutions, in their respective Preambles, cite gratitude to "Almighty God" or "the Supreme Being" for "blessings" such as "Liberty")." A fair number of my fellow Americans, I dare say, don't even realize that the four words "so help me God" it has become traditional, ever since George Washington himself first used them, to append to the Oath of Office for President of the United States are not at all actually part of that Oath as spelled out in Article II, Section 1, clause 8 of that document."
Even though many people may think "So help me God" is part of the presidential oath, and in spite of the widespread notion to the contrary, there is no contemporary historical evidence showing that George Washington added anything to his presidential oath of office. This American legend made its debut in 1854, sixty-five years after the event, in the book, "The Republican Court; or, American Society in the Days of Washington," by Rufus W. Griswold. Griswold may have picked up this bit about George Washington saying "so help me God" from Washington Irving. However, neither of them ever disclose just how they came by their version of Washington's oath.
As far as can be determined, the first President who is known to have added those words to his presidential oath is Chester Alan Arthur. He appended "so help me God" to his oath when he was sworn into office on Sept. 22, 1881 after the death of President Garfield. Later on, several other Presidents during the first third of the 20th Century adopted this practice. The last President, who did not use those words, was Herbert Hoover. One may say that a President can choose to add these words to the presidential oath, but it is a clear violation of the Constitution, and surely not a good idea for a judicial official to prompt the President to succumb to a religious test of office. This, unfortunately, has been the unbroken practice since FDR's Inaugural Ceremony in 1933, and there is absolutely no early record that this practice started with George Washington.
A customary place for a President to acknowledge God's role in our national affairs is in the Inaugural Address. Indeed all Presidents, with one exception, have done so. Washington's second Inaugural Ceremony, in contrast to his first (where Chancellor Livingston, a fellow Mason, most likely, requested a Bible; where Madison drafted Washington's Inaugural Address; and where Congress laid out the concluding church service), was one which Washington managed completely. There was no planned church service, or official prayer. Furthermore, there were no reports of a Bible being present, or Washington saying, "So help me God."
The practice of adding "So help me God" to federal oaths outside of the courtroom began in 1862 with the Iron-clad Test Oath during the Civil War. It was supposed to keep Confederate sympathizers from participating in the Federal Government. It may well have been a counter-measure designed to offset the psychological impact that followed when Jefferson Davis repeated "So help me God" as he took his oath of office as President of the Confederacy. It wasn't until President Arthur's administration that the federal oath was restored to a degree of normalcy, and stripped of its designed Civil War anti-Confederate hostilities. As you probably are well aware, Congress preferred to retain the "So help me God" anomaly.
The notion that George Washington, as the President of the Constitutional Convention, would, at any subsequent time, disregard the concerted effort of the convention delegates and unilaterally amend the presidential oath is an unsubstantiated Orwellian legend.
Two very contrasting videos about whether GW said SHMG can be seen on the internet. The first is a short musical ballad, "'So help me God' - he didn't say it," sung by Michael Newdow that can be accessed on his website http://www.restorethepledge.com/video/.
The second video is sponsored by the Senate Historians Office under the direction of the Senate Rule Committee, and a video icon, "'So Help Me God"' A historical look at the Inaugural Ceremonies 1789-2005," for it can be found in the lower right hand corner on their website http://inaugural.senate.gov/history/factsandfirsts/index.htm.
(You only have to view the first two or three minutes of either video to get their message.)
rxs at alum dot mit dot edu